Fade In: Michael Piller’s unpublished account of Star Trek Insurrection

From the book:

I wish I could have been there back in 1987 when Gene Roddenberry went to the studio and announced he’d found the perfect actor to play the new Star Trek captain — a middle-aged, bald Englishman.

If the show had been scheduled on CBS, NBC or ABC, Patrick Stewart would never have been Picard. Give us another Shatner, they would have said. Youthful, bold, swashbuckling. Young demographics! But Star Trek: The Next Generation was to be syndicated, that is, sold on a station by station basis. What that meant was that Paramount could mount the show any way they wanted to and if they wanted to cast a middle-aged, bald, Englishman, so be it.

Personally, I feel he missed a perfect opportunity to replace “so be it” with “make it so,” but that’s just me. Here’s the complete .pdf. If I could link you to a source where the book is purchasable, I would, but it was never officially published. It’s my understanding Michael Piller really wanted to give this book to fans and aspiring writers. So go, spread it like wildfire. It’s not a great book, but there is some good stuff in it. Like this:

Paramount had Patrick’s toupee overnighted from England and he returned the next day, this time with hair. Roddenberry took one look and said, “Take it off.” Everyone in the room realized that Patrick’s bald head carried a certain power.

I’m halfway through reading it and so far the book is more about writing than the fun bits of trivia. Writing is a lot like knitting. For people who are into that kind of thing, nothing is more rewarding than sitting down in a zombie-like trance and getting to work. But let’s face it: talking about the craft itself is almost as dull as listening to someone go on and on about the meaning of the dream they had last night. If you spent all day cleaning the house, you’d probably have more interesting stories to tell than if you had spent your day telling an actual story.

The point is a good book on writing is rare these days. Fade In almost qualifies. In it, Piller writes about writing the screenplay to a movie only a die-hard Star Trek fan could like. More importantly, he (sometimes) makes it interesting without resorting to “tell-all” drama and tabloid controversy. The Kid Stays in the Picture it ain’t, but it’s honest and shows a side of Hollywood that rarely sees the light of day. When was the last time you read a book about Hollywood in which everyone was A) acting so professional and B) hard drugs weren’t mentioned at all?

This is still brain candy, through and through, and I’m not convinced anyone but Star Trek fans would like it. And if you are a fan, you’ll shake your head as Piller enthusiastically relates how he and other forces conspired to craft a film that was a letdown for most viewers. The previous film in the series, First Contact, had a lot of goofy stuff in there (“Assimilate this!”—Worf), but it’s still one of the best and most lighthearted Star Trek films. 

Why Paramount would want to move away from that, why Piller would want to move away from that, why producer Rick Berman would want to move away from that, is beyond me. Usually with these kinds of franchises we wonder why they didn’t deviate from the formula. Here, we wonder why they decided to deviate so unanimously when so many of us actually wanted more First Contact. Piller’s book has many answers to questions like these, but they’re not as satisfying as expected.

For instance, in the film Data is back to being the Data we knew before he installed his emotion chip. We saw him temporarily deactivate the chip when he and a security team fought the Borg in the previous film (Picard: “Sometimes I envy you, Data.”), but why didn’t he ever turn it back on? Piller, demonstrating good attributes for an episodic television writer but not necessarily a movie writer, says he wanted to avoid what he calls “The Rhoda Effect.” He says audiences became uninterested in Rhoda after the titular character was married on the TV series. Well yeah, that’s true, but I kind of became uninterested in Data after he fell down a few rungs of his character arc.

Another annoyance with books about screenwriting is the unnecessary amount of filler material they employ. Early on, Piller includes a treatment for the screenplay in its entirety. Not much of it ends up in the final product. While some die-hard fans will find its inclusion interesting, I found myself skimming. By Piller’s own admission, when Berman read the treatment he said, “Who cares?” When I got to the second treatment Piller includes, I skipped it altogether. That’s not the stuff I personally wanted from a book like this, but a greater fan than I might appreciate it.

I think the most fascinating thing about the book is it makes you realize that sometimes there’s not really any one person or group to blame when a movie turns to shit. Whenever a movie in a series turns to shit, fans are always looking for excuses: “Oh, the studio ruined it,” or, “Their creative decisions were all about money,” etc. But everyone involved with the project was concerned with making an honest Star Trek flick, something that stayed true to the spirit. On the chairman of Viacom at the time, Jonathan Dolgen, Piller says:

As a rule, Dolgen doesn’t involve himself in creative decisions. But he breaks that rule for Star Trek. And it’s not (just) the money. He happens to be a huge fan. Dare I say, a Trekker?

Despite good intentions all around, it fell apart anyway. Apparently Piller didn’t get that memo. You can tell he feels the film turned out great despite the mixed reception. I think my biggest problem with Insurrection is Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore had just proven a Star Trek movie works best when it resembles a bonafide popcorn movie more than a television episode. Piller (and even Patrick Stewart, as indicated in correspondence reprinted in the book) seemed more interested in making a two-hour episode of The Next Generation. And on the big screen, that’s just kind of out of place.

The best (and worst) original Star Trek movies

Although TV-wise I’m a fan of The Next Generation, I think the original cast’s Star Trek films are the best. Some say the odd-numbered Star Trek films are shit, but I don’t agree, not completely. I think The Motion Picture has some worthwhile visuals, III’s pretty watchable and part V has one of my favorite lines in movie history: “What does God need with a starship?”

in typical Star Trek fashion, it’s heroic to question these matters

I absolutely love this series, even the bad ones. With the exception of The Undiscovered Country, all of these are currently streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure if they’re a good point to jump on for potential fans, but you could do worse on a Saturday night than having an original Star Trek movie marathon.

In chronological order:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This one I love to hate. Well, hate is a strong word. A few years ago I saw the director’s cut and reviewed it here. I don’t care who you are, you’ll like the sequel so it’s worth sitting through this one even if you fall asleep… like I did.

The Wrath of Kahn

The Hollywood-level of action and conflict is cranked up to eleven in this one. Even so, it manages not to become bloated while retaining a lot of the stuff hardcore fans like. It’s a surprisingly effective action movie. Although it’s the fan favorite, it’s actually my least favorite of the even-numbered films.

The Search for Spock

In case you haven’t seen The Wrath of Kahn yet, I won’t spoil where Spock is. The way they find Spock is a lot less magical than you expect, even if the science is stretched a bit thin. In this one, something happens that really cements Kirk’s hatred for Klingons. That’ll come around and bite him in the ass a few sequels later (The Undiscovered Country). It goes to show Star Trek has the potential to be a lot better when it has a less episodic story arc. I love Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon, but watching a younger version of Spock experience pon farr (links to the only episode of Enterprise I’ve ever seen) was pretty disturbing. The climactic battle is pretty unbelievable—not in the good way.

The Voyage Home

I think this is the first Star Trek anything I ever watched (I was three when it came out). All these years I thought there was no way I could possibly like it as an adult, but when I saw it again I fell in love with it. I typically hate comedies like this and it’s very much a comedy. As is such it’s the most bizarre Star Trek film ever made (see Spock spouting pseudo-obscenities). Even though the reboot series is borrowing heavily from this series’ sequence of plots, there’s no way in hell they’ll borrow from this film. There’s simply no way a movie like this can be made today, especially with a big-budget franchise. Although it’s the film anyone can like, the effectiveness is much greater when you’re familiar with everything that came before it. The hilarity of these characters being thrust into this situation will be lost on people unfamiliar with their typical personalities.

The Final Frontier

The Final Nightmare, The Final Friday, The Last Crusade… yeah right. Whereas the previous two films in the series were directed by Leonard Nimoy, this one’s directed by William Shatner. If ever you needed proof of Shatner’s ego, he opens the film on himself, bloated and about a hundred years old, climbing a mountain without any gear whatsoever. You know you’re in trouble the second you see Spock levitate on jet boots. Look, there’s a lot of shit in this one (it’s easily the worst of the original films), but like I said above, it’s got one of the best lines in movie history. Although the special effects took a hilarious downturn in quality, the film as a whole is not as bad as people claim.

The Undiscovered Country

This is easily the most well-rounded of everything we’ve seen prior to it. Ultra-serious actor Christopher Plummer makes a great Klingon. I must confess to having had a massive, prepubescent crush on Kim Cattrall’s Vulcan character when this premiered on HBO. David Warner, who was in the last film, comes back as a short-lived Klingon who’s attempting to orchestrate peace between his race and Starfleet. Unfortunately Kirk, who’s experience all the way back in part III continues to make him despise Klingons, finds himself in the role of ambassador. Like The Wrath of Kahn (which this film seems modeled on, right down to the choice of director), it’s an intense action flick which should have made a lot more money than it did. It’s a close tie with The Voyage Home in terms of which Star Trek film is my favorite.


I haven’t seen this one since it came out and don’t remember much aside from the “surprise ending” that was one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets. I liked it at the time, but that’s all I can reasonably recall. I’m not sure I’d call it one of the originals, though, so I’ll look into it more deeply when I review The Next Generation films.